When you think about the most prestigious soccer tournaments in the world, almost every fan begins with the World Cup (both for the men and the women). After that, you will have people mention the Euros, Copa América, and even Champions League and Copa Libertadores. However, on the continent of Africa, the Cradle of Civilization, lies the tournament that is easily the most underrated on the planet. The Africa Cup of Nations is always a hidden gem of a tournament each time it is contested. Its roots date back to the 1950s, where just a few teams began the competition that now is the motherland’s greatest.
In 1957, leaders of 3 federations organized the first edition of the Africa Cup of Nations. It was hosted by Sudan, with Egypt and Ethiopia also participating. South Africa was due to be the 4th team entered into the inaugural tournament, but they were disqualified from participation due to apartheid. So, the 3 nations carried on to determine who would become the best team on the African continent.
Ethiopia received a bye to the finals, the beneficiary of South Africa’s disqualification. Meanwhile, Egypt and Sudan played in the lone semifinal in Khartoum. Egypt’s Raafat Attia scored the first goal in AFCON history on a 21st minute penalty. Sudan’s Boraî Bashir equalized in the 58th minute, and it remained 1-1 until the 72nd minute. There, Mohamed Diab Al-Attar, better known as Ad-Diba, scored the deciding goal as Egypt dispatched the hosts 2-1.
That set up the final between Egypt and Ethiopia for continental glory. Ethiopia had ambitions of becoming the first team to lift the Cup of Nations trophy, but Egypt had the best player on the field. Ad-Diba dominated from start to finish, scoring all 4 goals and giving Egypt a 4-0 victory and the win in the first AFCON ever contested.
In 1959, Egypt repeated as champions, this time competing as the United Arab Republic, a confederation between Egypt and Syria. Sudan and Ethiopia also returned to play in the tournament. With the same three teams, a round robin was played, with the United Arab Republic winning both its matches to once again lift the trophy.
The next edition of the tournament was where it took off. Ethiopia (hosts) and Egypt (defending champion, back to competing as Egypt) automatically qualified for the tournament. However, 9 nations in all entered the competition, so for the first time, a qualifying round materialized. While Morocco withdrew before qualifying began, Tunisia and Uganda outlasted Nigeria, Ghana, and Kenya to make it to the Cup of Nations. Hosts Ethiopia eventually won their first trophy.
Today, Africa’s 56 teams all compete during qualifying for a chance to make it to a 24-team field at the Africa Cup of Nations. Some of the best players in world football history have had the glory of lifting the Cup of Nations trophy. Egypt has won the most tournaments (7), while Cameroon (5); Ghana (4); Nigeria (3); Ivory Coast, Algeria, and DR Congo (2 each); and Zambia, Tunisia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Morocco, South Africa and Congo (1 each) have also had the honor of lifting the trophy.
In a soccer world that’s hyperfocused on Europe, and to a lesser extent South America, Africa is a tournament that continues to deliver on action and quality play. It’s underestimated, underrated, but is consistently great. Fans would do well to pay attention to it when its next edition begins in 2022, as it has become one of the world’s most prestigious tournaments.
For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub. We will be bringing a story each day this month to highlight some of the biggest moments in black American and world soccer history.